One of the greatest dangers an actor faces is overexposure. After all, it’s said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. And don’t forget the old showbiz rule to always leave the audience asking for more. But James Garner has ignored these clichés throughout his lengthy career. He has starred in scores of movies, several TV series, and has also appeared frequently in commercials, often juggling work in all three areas at the same time. Yet, while other stars would burn out with so much exposure, Garner’s star keeps shining brightly. It’s no wonder his most famous role was as a "Maverick."
If his career contradicts the clichés, his personal story does not. It’s the usual one of a youth spent in poverty until fame and fortune strike as suddenly as lightning. Born James Bumgarner in 1928, the Oklahoma native’s mother died when he was five years old. After his father’s remarriage, the boy, now eight, went to work to help pay the bills. "God, I worked," he told TV Guide in 1975. "I worked harder than anybody."
Garner mowed lawns, mopped floors, worked in the oil fields of Texas, and, after moving to California, laid carpet with his father in the City of Angels. He never wanted to be an actor, but after a stint in Korea (and earning a Purple Heart), an old friend now working as a producer got him into the cast of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial on Broadway. In 1955, Garner was signed to Warner Bros. That year, he did a few guest shots on the studio’s popular TV western Cheyenne. Two years later, he was appearing with Marlon Brando in Sayonara, and had a TV western of his own. As the gun shy gambler known as Maverick, Garner became a star, the hottest actor on television, in fact.
Even in an era when westerns were as conspicuous on the home screen as they are scarce today, the Roy Huggins created series made a lasting impression by spoofing the genre. Slyly satiric and sophisticated in ways that other western series were not, Maverick presented a hero who rarely engaged in heroics, and dreaded violence to the point of cowardice. For three seasons, Garner perfected what would become his trademark: the self-effacing charmer who relied more on his wit than his fists when confronted with danger.
Garner may have been the most popular star on television, but his paycheck did not reflect his success. In 1960, he sued to get out of his contract and turned his back on television for more than a decade.
Making the transition from TV to movies is difficult, and few actors have done it successfully, but Garner, who had already starred in William Wellman’s Darby’s Rangers while still cranking out episodes of Maverick, made the move with no trouble at all. He may have seemed ill at ease opposite Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine in the overly dramatic The Children’s Hour, but made himself very comfortably at home in no less than four 1963 releases.
As the husband bewildered by his wife’s sudden rise to stardom in television commercials, Garner was memorably teamed with Doris Day in The Thrill of It All, a film in which he demonstrated his already proven flair for comedy. In The Wheeler Dealers, he was hilarious as a Texas oil tycoon with a fondness for "burnt" steaks and a hot Lee Remick.
If a second film that year with Doris Day, Move Over, Darling, threatened to typecast him as a leading man with a light touch, John Sturges’ The Great Escape gave him the opportunity to show a tougher side. In what is perhaps the ultimate World War II adventure film, Garner may not have had a moment as memorable as Steve McQueen’s famous motorcycle escape from the Nazis, but as Hendley "The Scrounger," who puts his own life in jeopardy by taking the blind Donald Pleasance under his wing as they escape from the P.O.W. camp, he displayed a warmth not always found in such macho surroundings.
In 1964, Garner appeared opposite Julie Andrews in what would become his favorite of all his films, The Americanization of Emily. With a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, the Arthur Hiller directed film asked some pungent questions about war and bravery, hence its appeal to an actor who made his mark playing characters who shunned the typically violent approach to settling cinematic predicaments.
After Maverick, Garner avoided westerns as much as he did TV, but now firmly established as a film star, one big enough for the Cinerama format in which John Frankenheimer’s 1966 racing drama Grand Prix was filmed, he got back in the saddle opposite Sidney Poitier in Ralph Nelson’s offbeat Duel at Diablo. A year later, he made one of the movies’ most impressive Wyatt Earps in John Sturges’ Hour of the Gun. Advertised with the tag line, "Hero with a badge or cold blooded killer?," the film was less exciting than its ad campaign would have you believe, but it remains one of the more intriguing explorations of the legendary lawman’s character.
Having returned to the range with such impressive results, by 1969 Garner was ready to once more play the genre for laughs. The memories of Maverick were vivid in Support Your Local Sheriff, Garner’s finest comedy to date. Whether asking outlaw Bruce Dern to pretend that the jail cell in which he is being locked actually has bars, or stuffing his finger in Walter Brennan’s gun barrel and admonishing him for rudeness, Garner gives his most winning comedic performance. The film, directed by Burt Kennedy from a screenplay by William Bowers, was popular with audiences, and inspired a spin-off in the form of the less successful Support Your Local Gunfighter two years later. But by then, Garner was contemplating an even stronger return to his roots.
By the close of the sixties, Garner was beginning to look askance at the violence and nudity that was commonplace in movies after the introduction of the MPAA rating system in 1969. That year, Garner starred in Marlowe, becoming the sixth actor to play Raymond Chandler’s legendary private eye (For the record, the preceding five were Humphrey Bogart, George Montgomery, Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, and Philip Carey who played the role on TV). That nifty credit aside, television was beginning to look attractive again, and, in September 1971, Garner debuted as Nichols (pictured at right), the reluctant sheriff of a small town in turn of the century Arizona. The accent was on characterization and humor of a gentle kind, but even with a pre-Lois Lane Margot Kidder in the cast, it may have been too gentle for audiences in the era of Archie Bunker, and the series struggled through its one season run.
But with The Rockford Files in 1974, Garner struck gold. As Jim Rockford, a private investigator who lived in a house trailer with his father in L.A., Garner won an Emmy and a legion of new fans. As wry and witty as Maverick, but with shades of Chandleresque cynicism, the series ran for six seasons on NBC, and would be revived in the 90s as a series of CBS-TV movies.
By the time Rockford temporarily closed his files, Garner was also prominent as a television pitchman, appearing in commercials for Polaroid with actress Mariette Hartley. Their appearances were so effective that the public believed they were actually Mr. and Mrs, leading Hartley to wear a T-shirt bearing the words, "I am not James Garner’s wife." Before long, Garner became the spokesman for the beef industry, informing us that "It’s what’s for dinner" until open heart surgery made him a less than ideal representative for the artery clogging product.
He still had the movies, though. Garner had little to do but look attentive as the companion of Lauren Bacall in the 1981 slasher flick The Fan, but reuniting with Julie Andrews for Blake Edwards’ gender bending Victor/Victoria put him back on the big screen in style. An even better role came his way in 1985’s Murphy’s Romance. As the small town druggist romancing Sally Field, Garner finally received the recognition from his colleagues that the public felt he had deserved for years by nominating him for an Oscar as Best Actor.
If his skill for light comedy made people forget he was also an accomplished dramatic actor, his superb work in such TV movies as Heartsounds (1984), The Promise (1986), My Name is Bill W. (1989), Decoration Day (1990), Barbarians at the Gate (1993), Breathing Lessons (1994), and Streets of Laredo (1995) helped them remember.
And who better than Garner to reprise Wyatt Earp opposite Bruce Willis as Tom Mix in 1988’s Sunset? Or play an ex-president alongside Jack Lemmon in 1996’s My Fellow Americans? And he’ll start the millennium in good company, too, appearing with Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones in Space Cowboys.
And through it all, there was always Maverick.
"One of the things I can’t stand about television," Garner complained to TV Guide in 1968, "is that they never let you live down your past. I still have people coming up to me and complimenting me on Maverick. And I haven’t made a Maverick in nearly 10 years!" But 10 years after registering that complaint, Garner did make another Maverick, guest starring in a pilot for ABC-TV’s The New Maverick. Retitled Young Maverick when it briefly became a series, Garner guested in the first episode. In 1981, Garner starred for NBC in Bret Maverick, his fourth series, and, in 1994, he joined Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster in Richard Donner’s big screen revival of the series that first brought him fame. By embracing rather than shunning his past, perhaps Garner is suggesting that another showbiz cliché--"give the people what they want"-- is the one he has learned to respect.
James Garner may not be the "last real man" as People christened him some years back, but he may very well be the last real star--an actor who shines in any medium and loses none of his sparkle with age.
Brian W. Fairbanks
© Copyright 1999, Brian W. Fairbanks. All Rights Reserved.
On Movies and Criticism
FOREWORD from I Saw That Movie, Too
TV MOVIES, MINI-SERIES, SPECIALS:
The Rockford Files (1974), The New Maverick (1978), Bret Maverick: The Lazy Ace (1981), The Long Summer of George Adams (1982), Heartsounds (1984), The Glitter Dome (1984), James A. Michener’s Space (1985), The Promise (1986), My Name Is Bill W. (1989), Decoration Day (1990), Barbarians at the Gate (1993), Breathing Lessons (1994), The Rockford Files: I Still Love L.A. (1994), The Rockford Files: A Blessing in Disguise (1995), Streets of Laredo (1995), The Rockford Files: If the Frame Fits, The Rockford Files: Godfather Knows Best, The Rockford Files: Friends and Foul Play, The Rockford Files: Crime and Punishment (1996), Dead Silence, Big Guns Talk: The Story of the Western, The Rockford Files: Murder and Misdemeanors (1997), Legalese (1998), A Winter Visitor, The Rockford Files: If It Bleeds...It Leads, Shake, Rattle and Roll: An American Love Story, One Special Night (1999), Clint Eastwood: Out of the Shadows (2000), Making of "Space Cowboys" (2000), The Last Debate (2000), Roughing It (2001).
Maverick (1957-60), Nichols (1971-72), The Rockford Files (1974-80), Bret Maverick (1981-82), Man of the People (1991), God, the Devil, and Bob (voice only, 2000), Chicago Hope (guest appearances, 2000), First Monday (2002), 8 Simple Rules...for Dating My Teenage Daughter (2003).
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